Resisting the Habits of the Algorithmic Mind

Algorithms, we are told, “rule our world.” They are ubiquitous. They lurk in the shadows, shaping our lives without our consent. They may revoke your driver’s license, determine whether you get your next job, or cause the stock market to crash. More worrisome still, they can also be the arbiters of lethal violence. No wonder one scholar has dubbed 2015 “the year we get creeped out by algorithms.” While some worry about the power of algorithms, other think we are in danger of overstating their significance or misunderstanding their nature. Some have even complained that we are treating algorithms like gods whose fickle, inscrutable wills control our destinies.

Clearly, it’s important that we grapple with the power of algorithms, real and imagined, but where do we start? It might help to disambiguate a few related concepts that tend to get lumped together when the word algorithm (or the phrase “Bid Data”) functions more as a master metaphor than a concrete noun. I would suggest that we distinguish at least three realities: data, algorithms, and devices. Through the use of our devices we generate massive amounts of data, which would be useless were it not for analytical tools, algorithms prominent among them. It may be useful to consider each of these separately; at least we should be mindful of the distinctions.

We should also pay some attention to the language we use to identify and understand algorithms. As Ian Bogost has forcefully argued, we should certainly avoid implicitly deifying algorithms by how we talk about them. But even some of our more mundane metaphors are not without their own difficulties. In a series of posts at The Infernal Machine, Kevin Hamilton considers the implications of the popular “black box” metaphor and how it encourages us to think about and respond to algorithms.

The black box metaphor tries to get at the opacity of algorithmic processes. Inputs are transformed into outputs, but most of us have no idea how the transformation was effected. More concretely, you may have been denied a loan or job based on the determinations of a program running an algorithm, but how exactly that determination was made remains a mystery.

In his discussion of the black box metaphor, Hamilton invites us to consider the following scenario:

“Let’s imagine a Facebook user who is not yet aware of the algorithm at work in her social media platform. The process by which her content appears in others’ feeds, or by which others’ material appears in her own, is opaque to her. Approaching that process as a black box, might well situate our naive user as akin to the Taylorist laborer of the pre-computer, pre-war era. Prior to awareness, she blindly accepts input and provides output in the manufacture of Facebook’s product. Upon learning of the algorithm, she experiences the platform’s process as newly mediated. Like the post-war user, she now imagines herself outside the system, or strives to be so. She tweaks settings, probes to see what she has missed, alters activity to test effectiveness. She grasps at a newly-found potential to stand outside this system, to command it. We have a tendency to declare this a discovery of agency—a revelation even.”

But how effective is this new way of approaching her engagement with Facebook, now informed by the black box metaphor? Hamilton thinks “this grasp toward agency is also the beginning of a new system.” “Tweaking to account for black-boxed algorithmic processes,” Hamilton suggests, “could become a new form of labor, one that might then inevitably find description by some as its own black box, and one to escape.” Ultimately, Hamilton concludes, “most of us are stuck in an ‘opt-in or opt-out’ scenario that never goes anywhere.”

If I read him correctly, Hamilton is describing an escalating, never-ending battle to achieve a variety of desired outcomes in relation to the algorithmic system, all of which involve securing some kind of independence from the system, which we now understand as something standing apart and against us. One of those outcomes may be understood as the state Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog have called obscurity, “the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe.” “Obscurity,” in their view, “is a protective state that can further a number of goals, such as autonomy, self-fulfillment, socialization, and relative freedom from the abuse of power.”

Another desired outcome that fuels resistance to black box algorithms involves what we might sum up as the quest for authenticity. Whatever relative success algorithms achieve in predicting our likes and dislikes, our actions, our desires–such successes are often experienced as an affront to our individuality and autonomy. Ironically, the resulting battle against the algorithm often secures the their relative victory by fostering what Frank Pasquale has called the algorithmic self, constantly modulating itself in response/reaction to the algorithms it encounters.

More recently, Quinn Norton expressed similar concerns from a slightly different angle: “Your internet experience isn’t the main result of algorithms built on surveillance data; you are. Humans are beautifully plastic, endlessly adaptable, and over time advertisers can use that fact to make you into whatever they were hired to make you be.”

Algorithms and the Banality of Evil

These concerns about privacy or obscurity on the one hand and agency or authenticity on the other are far from insignificant. Moving forward, though, I will propose another approach to the challenges posed by algorithmic culture, and I’ll do so with a little help from Joseph Conrad and Hannah Arendt.

In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as the narrator, Marlow, makes his way down the western coast of Africa toward the mouth of the Congo River in the service of a Belgian trading company, he spots a warship anchored not far from shore: “There wasn’t even a shed there,” he remembers, “and she was shelling the bush.”

“In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,” he goes on, “there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent …. and nothing happened. Nothing could happen.” “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” he concluded. This curious and disturbing sight is the first of three such cases encountered by Marlow in quick succession.

Not long after he arrived at the Company’s station, Marlow heard a loud horn and then saw natives scurry away just before witnessing an explosion on the mountainside: “No change appeared on the face of the rock. They were building a railway. The cliff was not in the way of anything; but this objectless blasting was all the work that was going on.”

These two instances of seemingly absurd, arbitrary action are followed by a third. Walking along the station’s grounds, Marlow “avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope, the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine.” As they say: two is a coincidence; three’s a pattern.

Nestled among these cases of mindless, meaningless action, we encounter as well another kind of related thoughtlessness. The seemingly aimless shelling he witnessed at sea, Marlow is assured, targeted an unseen camp of natives. Registering the incongruity, Marlow exclaims, “he called them enemies!” Later, Marlow recalls the shelling off the coastline when he observed the natives scampering clear of each blast on the mountainside: “but these men could by no stretch of the imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from the sea.”

Taken together these incidents convey a principle: thoughtlessness couples with ideology to abet violent oppression. We’ll come back to that principle in a moment, but, before doing so, consider two more passages from the novel. Just before that third case of mindless action, Marlow reflected on the peculiar nature of the evil he was encountering:

“I’ve seen the devil of violence, and the devil of greed, and the devil of hot desire; but, by all the stars! these were strong, lusty, red-eyed devils, that swayed and drove men–men, I tell you. But as I stood on this hillside, I foresaw that in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of rapacious and pitiless folly.”

Finally, although more illustrations could be adduced, after an exchange with an insipid, chatty company functionary, who is also an acolyte of Mr. Kurtz, Marlow had this to say: “I let him run on, the papier-mâché Mephistopheles, and it seemed to me that if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

That sentence, to my mind, most readily explains why T.S. Eliot chose as an epigraph for his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” a line from Heart of Darkness: “Mistah Kurtz – he dead.” This is likely an idiosyncratic reading, so take it with the requisite grain of salt, but I take Conrad’s papier-mâché Mephistopheles to be of a piece with Eliot’s hollow men, who having died are remembered “Not as lost

Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.”

For his part, Conrad understood that these hollow men, these flabby devils were still capable of immense mischief. Within the world as it is administered by the Company, there is a great deal of doing but very little thinking or understanding. Under these circumstances, men are characterized by a thoroughgoing superficiality that renders them willing, if not altogether motivated participants in the Company’s depredations. Conrad, in fact, seems to have intuited the peculiar dangers posed by bureaucratic anomie and anticipated something like what Hannah Arendt later sought to capture in her (in)famous formulation, “the banality of evil.”

If you are familiar with the concept of the banality of evil, you know that Arendt conceived of it as a way of characterizing the kind of evil embodied by Adolph Eichmann, a leading architect of the Holocaust, and you may now be wondering if I’m preparing to argue that algorithms will somehow facilitate another mass extermination of human beings.

Not exactly. I am circumspectly suggesting that the habits of the algorithmic mind are not altogether unlike the habits of the bureaucratic mind. (Adam Elkus makes a similar correlation here, but I think I’m aiming at a slightly different target.) Both are characterized by an unthinking automaticity, a narrowness of focus, and a refusal of responsibility that yields the superficiality or hollowness Conrad, Eliot, and Arendt all seem to be describing, each in their own way. And this superficiality or hollowness is too easily filled with mischief and cruelty.

While Eichmann in Jerusalem is mostly remembered for that one phrase (and also for the controversy the book engendered), “the banality of evil” appears, by my count, only once in the book. Arendt later regretted using the phrase, and it has been widely misunderstood. Nonetheless, I think there is some value to it, or at least to the condition that it sought to elucidate. Happily, Arendt returned to the theme in a later, unfinished work, The Life of the Mind.

Eichmann’s trial continued to haunt Arendt. In the Introduction, Arendt explained that the impetus for the lectures that would become The Life of the Mind stemmed from the Eichmann trial. She admits that in referring to the banality of evil she “held no thesis or doctrine,” but she now returns to the nature of evil embodied by Eichmann in a renewed attempt to understand it: “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic nor monstrous.” She might have added: “… if I tried I could poke my forefinger through him, and would find nothing inside but a little loose dirt, maybe.”

There was only one “notable characteristic” that stood out to Arendt: “it was not stupidity but thoughtlessness.” Arendt’s close friend, Mary McCarthy, felt that this word choice was unfortunate. “Inability to think” rather than thoughtlessness, McCarthy believed, was closer to the sense of the German word Gedankenlosigkeit.

Later in the Introduction, Arendt insisted “absence of thought is not stupidity; it can be found in highly intelligent people, and a wicked heart is not its cause; it is probably the other way round, that wickedness may be caused by absence of thought.”

Arendt explained that it was this “absence of thinking–which is so ordinary an experience in our everyday life, where we have hardly the time, let alone the inclination, to stop and think–that awakened my interest.” And it posed a series of related questions that Arendt sought to address:

“Is evil-doing (the sins of omission, as well as the sins of commission) possible in default of not just ‘base motives’ (as the law calls them) but of any motives whatever, of any particular prompting of interest or volition?”

“Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty for telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?”

All told, Arendt arrived at this final formulation of the question that drove her inquiry: “Could the activity of thinking as such, the habit of examining whatever happens to come to pass or to attract attention, regardless of results and specific content, could this activity be among the conditions that make men abstain from evil-doing or even actually ‘condition’ them against it?”

It is with these questions in mind–questions, mind you, not answers–that I want to return to the subject with which we began, algorithms.

Outsourcing the Life of the Mind

Momentarily considered apart from data collection and the devices that enable it, algorithms are principally problem solving tools. They solve problems that ordinarily require cognitive labor–thought, decision making, judgement. It is these very activities–thinking, willing, and judging–that structure Arendt’s work in The Life of the Mind. So, to borrow the language that Evan Selinger has deployed so effectively in his critique of contemporary technology, we might say that algorithms outsource the life of the mind. And, if Arendt is right, this outsourcing of the life of the mind is morally consequential.

The outsourcing problem is at the root of much of our unease with contemporary technology. Machines have always done things for us, and they are increasingly doing things for us and without us. Increasingly, the human element is displaced in favor of faster, more efficient, more durable, cheaper technology. And, increasingly, the displaced human element is the thinking, willing, judging mind. Of course, the party of the concerned is most likely the minority party. Advocates and enthusiasts rejoice at the marginalization or eradication of human labor in its physical, mental, emotional, and moral manifestations. They believe that the elimination of all of this labor will yield freedom, prosperity, and a golden age of leisure. Critics meanwhile, and I count myself among them, struggle to articulate a compelling and reasonable critique of this scramble to outsource various dimensions of the human experience.

But perhaps we have ignored another dimension of the problem, one that the outsourcing critique itself might, possibly, encourage. Consider this:  to say that algorithms are displacing the life of the mind is to unwittingly endorse a terribly impoverished account of the life of the mind. For instance, if I were to argue that the ability to “Google” whatever bit of information we happen to need when we need it leads to an unfortunate “outsourcing” of our memory, it may be that I am already giving up the game because I am implicitly granting that a real equivalence exists between all that is entailed by human memory and the ability to digitally store and access information. A moments reflection, of course, will reveal that human remembering involves considerably more than the mere retrieval of discreet bits of data. The outsourcing critique, then, valuable as it is, must also challenge the assumption that the outsourcing occurs without remainder.

Viewed in this light, the problem with outsourcing the life of the mind is that it encourages an impoverished conception of what constitutes the life of the mind in the first place. Outsourcing, then, threatens our ability to think not only because some of our “thinking” will be done for us; it will do so because, if we are not careful, we will be habituated into conceiving of the life of the mind on the model of the problem-solving algorithm. We would thereby surrender the kind of thinking that Arendt sought to describe and defend, thinking that might “condition” us against the varieties of evil that transpire in environments of pervasive thoughtlessness.

In our responses to the concerns raised by algorithmic culture, we tend to ask, What can we do? Perhaps, this is already to miss the point by conceiving of the matter as a problem to be solved by something like a technical solution. Perhaps the most important and powerful response is not an action we take but rather an increased devotion to the life of the mind. The phrase sounds quaint, or, worse, elitist. As Arendt meant it, it was neither. Indeed, Arendt was convinced that if thinking was somehow essential to moral action, it must be accessible to all: “If […] the ability to tell right from wrong should turn out to have anything to do with the ability to think, then we must be able to ‘demand’ its exercise from every sane person, no matter how erudite or ignorant, intelligent or stupid, he may happen to be.”

And how might we pursue the life of the mind? Perhaps the first, modest step in that direction is simply the cultivation of times and spaces for thinking, and perhaps also resisting the urge to check if there is an app for that.


Machines, Work, and the Value of People

Late last month, Microsoft released a “bot” that guesses your age based on an uploaded picture. The bot tended to be only marginally accurate and sometimes hilariously (or disconcertingly) wrong. What’s more, people quickly began having some fun with the program by uploading faces of actors playing fictional characters, such as Yoda or Gandalf. My favorite was Ian Bogost’s submission:

Shortly after the How Old bot had its fleeting moment of virality, Nathan Jurgenson tweeted the following:

This was an interesting observation, and it generated a few interesting replies. Jurgenson himself added, “much of the bigdata/algorithm debates miss how poor these often perform. many critiques presuppose & reify their untenable positivism.” He summed up this line of thought with this tweet: “so much ‘tech criticism’ starts first with uncritically buying all of the hype silicon valley spits out.”

Let’s pause here for a moment. All of this is absolutely true. Yet … it’s not all hype, not necessarily anyway. Let’s bracket the more outlandish claims made by the singularity crowd, of course. But take facial recognition software, for instance. It doesn’t strike me as wildly implausible that in the near future facial recognition programs will achieve a rather striking degree of accuracy.

Along these lines, I found Kyle Wrather’s replies to Jurgenson’s tweet particularly interesting. First, Wrather noted, “[How Old Bot] being wrong makes people more comfortable w/ facial recognition b/c it seems less threatening.” He then added, “I think people would be creeped out if we’re totally accurate. When it’s wrong, humans get to be ‘superior.'”

Wrather’s second comment points to an intriguing psychological dynamic. Certain technologies generate a degree of anxiety about the relative status of human beings or about what exactly makes human beings “special”–call it post-humanist angst, if you like.

Of course, not all technologies generate this sort of angst. When it first appeared, the airplane was greeted with awe and a little battiness (consider alti-man). But as far as I know, it did not result in any widespread fears about the nature and status of human beings. The seemingly obvious reason for this is that flying is not an ability that has ever defined what it means to be a human being.

It seems, then, that anxiety about new technologies is sometimes entangled with shifting assumptions about the nature or dignity of humanity. In other words, the fear that machines, computers, or robots might displace human beings may or may not materialize, but it does tell us something about how human nature is understood.

Is it that new technologies disturb existing, tacit beliefs about what it means to be a human, or is it the case that these beliefs arise in response to a new perceived threat posed by technology? I’m not entirely sure, but some sort of dialectical relationship is involved.

A few examples come to mind, and they track closely to the evolution of labor in Western societies.

During the early modern period, perhaps owing something to the Reformation’s insistence on the dignity of secular work, the worth of a human being gets anchored to their labor, most of which is, at this point in history, manual labor. The dignity of the manual laborer is later challenged by mechanization during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this results in a series of protest movements, most famously that of the Luddites.

Eventually, a new consensus emerges around the dignity of factory work, and this is, in turn, challenged by the advent of new forms of robotic and computerized labor in the mid-twentieth century.

Enter the so-called knowledge worker, whose short-lived ascendency is presently threatened by advances in computers and AI.

I think this latter development helps explain our present fascination with creativity. It’s been over a decade since Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, but interest in and pontificating about creativity continues apace. What I’m suggesting is that this fixation on creativity is another recalibration of what constitutes valuable, dignified labor, which is also, less obviously perhaps, what is taken to constitute the value and dignity of the person. Manual labor and factory jobs give way to knowledge work, which now surrenders to creative work. As they say, nice work if you can get it.

Interestingly, each re-configuration not only elevated a new form of labor, but it also devalued the form of labor being displaced. Manual labor, factory work, even knowledge work, once accorded dignity and respect, are each reframed as tedious, servile, monotonous, and degrading just as they are being replaced. If a machine can do it, it suddenly becomes sub-human work.

(It’s also worth noting how displaced forms of work seem to re-emerge and regain their dignity in certain circles. I’m presently thinking of Matthew Crawford’s defense of manual labor and the trades. Consider as well this lecture by Richard Sennett, “The Decline of the Skills Society.”)

It’s not hard to find these rhetorical dynamics at play in the countless presently unfolding discussions of technology, labor, and what human beings are for. Take as just one example this excerpt from the recent New Yorker profile of venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen (emphasis mine):

Global unemployment is rising, too—this seems to be the first industrial revolution that wipes out more jobs than it creates. One 2013 paper argues that forty-seven per cent of all American jobs are destined to be automated. Andreessen argues that his firm’s entire portfolio is creating jobs, and that such companies as Udacity (which offers low-cost, online “nanodegrees” in programming) and Honor (which aims to provide better and better-paid in-home care for the elderly) bring us closer to a future in which everyone will either be doing more interesting work or be kicking back and painting sunsets. But when I brought up the raft of data suggesting that intra-country inequality is in fact increasing, even as it decreases when averaged across the globe—America’s wealth gap is the widest it’s been since the government began measuring it—Andreessen rerouted the conversation, saying that such gaps were “a skills problem,” and that as robots ate the old, boring jobs humanity should simply retool. “My response to Larry Summers, when he says that people are like horses, they have only their manual labor to offer”—he threw up his hands. “That is such a dark and dim and dystopian view of humanity I can hardly stand it!”

As always, it is important to ask a series of questions:  Who’s selling what? Who stands to profit? Whose interests are being served? Etc. With those considerations in mind, it is telling that leisure has suddenly and conveniently re-emerged as a goal of human existence. Previous fears about technologically driven unemployment have ordinarily been met by assurances that different and better jobs would emerge. It appears that pretense is being dropped in favor of vague promises of a future of jobless leisure. So, it seems we’ve come full circle to classical estimations of work and leisure: all work is for chumps and slaves. You may be losing your job, but don’t worry, work is for losers anyway.

So, to sum up: Some time ago, identity and a sense of self-worth got hitched to labor and productivity. Consequently, each new technological displacement of human work appears to those being displaced as an affront to the their dignity as human beings. Those advancing new technologies that displace human labor do so by demeaning existing work as below our humanity and promising more humane work as a consequence of technological change. While this is sometimes true–some work that human beings have been forced to perform has been inhuman–deployed as a universal truth, it is little more than rhetorical cover for a significantly more complex and ambivalent reality.

Fit the Tool to the Person, Not the Person to the Tool

I recently had a conversation with a student about the ethical quandaries raised by the advent of self-driving cars. Hypothetically, for instance, how would a self-driving car react to a pedestrian who stepped out in front of it? Whose safety would it be programmed to privilege?

The relatively tech-savvy student was unfazed. Obviously this would only be a problem until pedestrians were forced out of the picture. He took it for granted that the recalcitrant human element would be eliminated as a matter of course in order to perfect the technological system. I don’t think he took this to be a “good” solution, but he intuited the sad truth that we are more likely to bend the person to fit the technological system than to design the system to fit the person.

Not too long ago, I made a similar observation:

… any system that encourages machine-like behavior from its human components, is a system poised to eventually eliminate the human element altogether. To give it another turn, we might frame it as a paradox of complexity. As human beings create powerful and complex technologies, they must design complex systemic environments to ensure their safe operation. These environments sustain further complexity by disciplining human actors to abide by the necessary parameters. Complexity is achieved by reducing human action to the patterns of the system; consequently, there comes a point when further complexity can only be achieved by discarding the human element altogether. When we design systems that work best the more machine-like we become, we shouldn’t be surprised when the machines ultimately render us superfluous.

A few days ago, Elon Musk put it all very plainly:

“Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk believes that cars you can control will eventually be outlawed in favor of ones that are controlled by robots. The simple explanation: Musk believes computers will do a much better job than us to the point where, statistically, humans would be a liability on roadways [….] Musk said that the obvious move is to outlaw driving cars. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ Musk said. ‘You can’t have a person driving a two-ton death machine.'”

Mind you, such a development, were it to transpire, would be quite a boon for the owner of a company working on self-driving cars. And we should also bear in mind Dale Carrico’s admonition “to consider what these nonsense predictions symptomize in the way of present fears and desires and to consider what present constituencies stand to benefit from the threats and promises these predictions imply.”

If autonomous cars become the norm and transportation systems are designed to accommodate their needs, it will not have happened because of some force inherent in the technology itself. It will happen because interested parties will make it happen, with varying degrees of acquiescence from the general public.

This was precisely the case with the emergence of the modern highway system that we take for granted. Its development was not a foregone conclusion. It was heavily promoted by government and industry. As Walter Lippmann observed during the 1939 World’s Fair, “General motors has spent a small fortune to convince the american public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise.”

Consider as well the film below produced by Dow Chemicals in support of the 1956 Federal Aid-Highway Act:

Whatever you think about the virtues or vices of the highway system and a transportation system designed premised on the primacy the automobile, my point is that such a system did not emerge in a cultural or political vacuum. Choices were made; political will was exerted; money was spent. So it is now, and so it will be tomorrow.

Stuck Behind a Plow in India

So this is going to come off as more than a bit cynical, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t intend it to be.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard an interesting claim expressed by disparate people in strikingly similar language. The claim was always some variation of the following: the most talented person in the world is most likely stuck behind a plow in some third world country. The recurring formulation caught my attention, so I went looking for the source.

As it turns out, sometime in 2014, Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, proposed the following:

“The biggest impact on the world will be universal access to all human knowledge. The smartest person in the world currently could well be stuck behind a plow in India or China. Enabling that person — and the millions like him or her — will have a profound impact on the development of the human race.”

It occurred to me that this “stuck behind a plow” claim is the 21st century version of the old “rags to riches” story. The rags to riches story promoted certain virtues–hard work, resilience, thrift, etc.–by promising that they will be extravagantly rewarded. Of course, such extravagant rewards have always been rare and rarely correlated to how hard one might be willing to work. Which is not, I hasten to add, a knock against hard work and its rewards, such as they may be. But, to put the point more critically, the genre served interests other than those of its ostensible audience. And so it is with the “stuck behind a plow” pitch.

The “rags to riches/stuck behind a plow” narrative is an egalitarian story, at least on the surface. It inspires the hope that an undiscovered Everyman languishing in impoverished obscurity, properly enabled, can hope to be a person of world-historical consequence, or at least remarkably prosperous. It’s a happy claim, and, of course, impossible to refute–not that I’m particularly interested in refuting the possibility.

The problem, as I see it, is that, coming from the would-be noble enablers, it’s also a wildly convenient, self-serving claim. Who but Google could enable such benighted souls by providing universal access to all human knowledge?

Never mind that the claim is hyperbolic and traffics in an impoverished notion of what counts as knowledge. Never mind, as well, that, even if we grant the hyperbole, access to knowledge by itself cannot transform a society, cure its ills, heal its injustices, or lift the poor out of their poverty.

I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Before he ships off to the Congo, Marlow’s aunt, who had helped secure his job with the Company, gushes about the nobility of work he is undertaking. Marlow would be “something like an emissary of light, something like a lower sort of apostle.” In her view, he would be “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.”

Then comes the wonderfully deadpanned line that we would do well to remember:

“I ventured to hint that the Company was run for profit.”

The Ageless and the Useless

In The Religion of the Future, Roberto Unger, a professor of law at Harvard, identifies humanity’s three “irreparable flaws”: mortality, groundlessness, and insatiability. We are plagued by death. We are fundamentally ignorant about our origins and our place in the grand scheme of things. We are made perpetually restless by desires that cannot finally be satisfied. This is the human condition. In his view, all of the world’s major religions have tried to address these three irreparable flaws, and they have all failed. It is now time, he proposes, to envision a new religion that will be adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. His own proposal is a rather vague program of learning to be at once more god-like while eschewing certain god-like qualities, such as immortality, omniscience, and perfectibility. It strikes me as less than actionable.

There is, however, another religious option taking shape. In a wide-ranging Edge interview with Daniel Kahneman about the unfolding future, historian Yuval Noah Harari concluded with the following observation:

“In terms of history, the events in Middle East, of ISIS and all of that, is just a speed bump on history’s highway. The Middle East is not very important. Silicon Valley is much more important. It’s the world of the 21st century … I’m not speaking only about technology. In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil, are creating new religions. These are the religions that will take over the world, not the ones coming out of Syria and Iraq and Nigeria.”

This is hardly an original claim, although it’s not clear that Harari recognizes this. Indeed, just a few months ago I commented on another Edge conversation in which Jaron Lanier took aim at the “layer of religious thinking” being added “to what otherwise should be a technical field.” Lanier was talking about the field of AI. He went on to complain about a “core of technically proficient, digitally-minded people” who “reject traditional religions and superstitions,” but then “re-create versions of those old religious superstitions!” “In the technical world,” he added, “these superstitions are just as confusing and just as damaging as before, and in similar ways.”

This emerging Silicon Valley religion, which is just the latest iteration of the religion of technology, is devoted to addressing one of the three irreparable flaws identified by Unger: our mortality. From this angle it becomes apparent that there are two schools within this religious tradition. The first of these seeks immortality through the digitization of consciousness so that it may be downloaded and preserved forever. Decoupled from corruptible bodies, our essential self lives on in the cloud–a metaphor that now appears in a new light. We may call this the gnostic strain of the Silicon Valley religion.

The second school grounds its slightly more plausible hopes for immortality in the prospect of making the body imperishable through biogenetic and cyborg enhancements. It is this prospect that Harari takes to be a serious possibility:

“Yes, the attitude now towards disease and old age and death is that they are basically technical problems. It is a huge revolution in human thinking. Throughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality ….

People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.”

Harari expands on that last line a little further on:

“Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.”

Kahneman pressed Harari on this point. Won’t the medical technology that yields radical life extension trickle down to the masses? In response, Harari draws on a second prominent theme that runs throughout the conversation: superfluous humans.

“But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over …. And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain.”

There is a lot to consider in these few paragraphs, but here are what I take to be the three salient points: the problem solving approach to death, the coming radical inequality, and the problem of “useless people.”

Harari is admirably frank about his status as a historian and the nature of the predictions he is making. He acknowledges that he is not a technologist nor a physician and that he is merely extrapolating possible futures from observable trends. That said, I think Harari’s discussion is compelling not only because of the elegance of his synthesis, but also because it steers clear of the more improbable possibilities–he does not think that AI will become conscious, for instance. It also helps that he is chastened by a historian’s understanding of the contingency of human affairs.

He is almost certainly right about the transformation of death into a technical problem. Adumbrations of this attitude are present at the very beginnings of modern science. Francis Bacon, the great Elizabethan promoter of modern science, wrote in his History of Life and Death, “Whatever can be repaired gradually without destroying the original whole is, like the vestal fire, potentially eternal.” Elsewhere, he gave as the goal of the pursuit of knowledge “a discovery of all operations and possibilities of operations from immortality (if it were possible) to the meanest mechanical practice.”

In the 1950’s, Hannah Arendt anticipated these concerns as well when, in the Prologue to The Human Condition, she wrote about the “hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.” “This future man,” she added,

“whom scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.”

Approaching death as a technical problem will surely yield some tangible benefits even if it fails to deliver immortality or even radical life extension. But what will be the costs? It will be the case that even if it fails to yield a “solution,” turning death into a technical problem will have profound social, psychological, and moral consequences. How will it affect the conduct of my life? How will this approach help us face death when it finally comes? As Harari himself puts it, “My guess, which is only a guess, is that the people who live today, and who count on the ability to live forever, or to overcome death in 50 years, 60 years, are going to be hugely disappointed. It’s one thing to accept that I’m going to die. It’s another thing to think that you can cheat death and then die eventually. It’s much harder.”

Strikingly, Arendt also commented on “the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity.” If this appears to us as an unmitigated blessing, Arendt would have us think otherwise:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won . . . What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”

So we are back to useless people. Interestingly, Harari locates this possibility in a long trend toward specialization that has been unfolding for some time:

“And when you look at it more and more, for most of the tasks that humans are needed for, what is required is just intelligence, and a very particular type of intelligence, because we are undergoing, for thousands of years, a process of specialization, which makes it easier to replace us.”

Intelligence as a opposed to consciousness. Harari makes the point that the two have been paired throughout human history. Increasingly, we are able to create intelligence apart from consciousness. The intelligence is very limited, it may be able to do one thing extremely well but utterly fail at other, seemingly simple tasks. But specialization, or the division of labor, has opened the door for the replacement of human or consciousness-based intelligence with machine intelligence. In other words, the mechanization of human action prepares the way for the replacement of human actors.

Some may object by noting that similar predictions have been made before and have not materialized. I think Harari’s rejoinder is spot on:

“And again, I don’t want to give a prediction, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, but what you do see is it’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf, that, yes, you cry wolf once, twice, three times, and maybe people say yes, 50 years ago, they already predicted that computers will replace humans, and it didn’t happen. But the thing is that with every generation, it is becoming closer, and predictions such as these fuel the process.”

I’ve noted before that utopians often take the moral of Chicken Little for their interpretive paradigm: the sky never falls. Better I think, as Harari also suggests, to consider the wisdom of the story of the boy who cried wolf.

I would add here that the plausibility of these predictions is only part of what makes them interesting or disconcerting, depending on your perspective. Even if these predictions turn out to be far off the mark, they are instructive as symptoms. As Dale Carrico has put it, the best response to futurist rhetoric may be “to consider what these nonsense predictions symptomize in the way of present fears and desires and to consider what present constituencies stand to benefit from the threats and promises these predictions imply.”

Moreover, to the degree that these predictions are extrapolations from present trends, they may reveal something to us about these existing tendencies. Along these lines, I think the very idea of “useless people” tells us something of interest about the existing trend to outsource a wide range of human actions to machines and apps. This outsourcing presents itself as a great boon, of course, but it finally it raises a question: What exactly are we be liberated for?

It’s a point I’ve raised before in connection to the so-called programmable world of the Internet of Things:

For some people at least, the idea seems to be that when we are freed from these mundane and tedious activities, we will be free to finally tap the real potential of our humanity. It’s as if there were some abstract plane of human existence that no one had yet achieved because we were fettered by our need to be directly engaged with the material world. I suppose that makes this a kind of gnostic fantasy. When we no longer have to tend to the world, we can focus on … what exactly?

Put the possibility of even marginally extended life-spans together with the reductio ad absurdum of digital outsourcing, and we can render an even more pointed version of Arendt’s warning about a society of laborers without labor. We are being promised the extension of human life precisely when we have lost any compelling account of what exactly we should do with our lives.

As for what to do about the problem of useless people, or the permanently unemployed, Harari is less than sanguine:

“I don’t have a solution, and the biggest question maybe in economics and politics of the coming decades will be what to do with all these useless people. I don’t think we have an economic model for that. My best guess, which is just a guess, is that food will not be a problem. With that kind of technology, you will be able to produce food to feed everybody. The problem is more boredom, and what to do with people, and how will they find some sense of meaning in life when they are basically meaningless, worthless.

My best guess at present is a combination of drugs and computer games as a solution for most … it’s already happening. Under different titles, different headings, you see more and more people spending more and more time, or solving their inner problems with drugs and computer games, both legal drugs and illegal drugs. But this is just a wild guess.”

Of course, as Harari states repeatedly, all of this is conjecture. Certainly, the future need not unfold this way. Arendt, after commenting on the desire to break free of the human condition by the deployment of our technical know-how, added,

“The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in this direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”

Or, as Marshall McLuhan put it, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”